Martin McGuinness: How being honest about his IRA ties let him become a peacemaker

The one-time Irish Republican Army commander and former first minister of Northern Ireland, who passed away today, was both a gunman and a statesman.

Peter Morrison/AP/File
Martin McGuinness, leaves a Belfast news conference in front of a mural of Bobby Sands on the Falls Road in West Belfast, Northern Ireland, in April 2001.

This morning I awoke to the news that Martin McGuinness, the former first minister of Northern Ireland and a noted commander of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), had died.

His death was not unexpected. Although McGuinness nominally stood down as first minister in January of this year because a scandal had engulfed his coalition partner, the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), he stated that for health reasons he would not himself be seeking re-election.

Of course, as an IRA commander, McGuinness was a man who knew a thing or two about death. But oddly enough, it was his IRA credentials, and the violence those entailed, that allowed him to become the statesman he was in the latter half of his life.

For me, as for most Irish people in their late 30s, McGuinness was one half of a double-act, along with Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams. During the early years of the peace process, in the 1990s, McGuinness was the shadowier of the two – such that when the peace accord was finally up and running and McGuinness took on the role of minister for education in the devolved government, I heard him mordantly referred to as "the sinister minister."

The humor cut both ways: the late unionist leader and firebrand Protestant preacher, Ian Paisley, was known by the name of the first James Bond movie: Dr. No. Doctor, because he had a doctorate of theology from Bob Jones University in South Carolina; No, because for three decades he refused to speak to Irish republicans.

Things would change. McGuinness would go on to become deputy first minister of Northern Ireland. He and his old enemy, Mr. Paisley, came to be referred to as "the Chuckle Brothers," such was the apparent bonhomie. McGuinness even became widely respected.

After Paisley’s death in 2014, McGuinness stayed on in his role, working alongside successive DUP leaders Peter Robinson and Arlene Foster, but never again was the relationship so friendly.

Sinn Féin’s ambition was, and is, to unify Ireland, and not to administer a devolved government. McGuinness was no exception to this. His tactics did change, though, with the ballot box replacing the gun, and symbolic measures taking on more and more significance. In 2011, for instance, he took a run at the presidency of Ireland, putting in a respectable performance although not coming close to winning. No politicians with an IRA past could possibly ever withstand the barrage of investigation that would come their way.

Still, while Mr. Adams’s stock has fallen over the years, McGuinness’s has risen. It seems strange to say now, but at one point Adams was seen as a statesman and peacemaker almost – though not quite – on a par with Nelson Mandela.

Of course, it doesn’t help that Ireland’s conflict ended in stalemate, whereas Mandela was able to take power when his old foe, apartheid South Africa, essentially collapsed. A neat ending never occurred in Ireland, and the question of the rights and wrongs of the conflict are unlikely to be ever fully settled. Besides, as bad as Northern Ireland was, even at its worst few consider it comparable to South Africa. When former Irish President Mary McAleese once compared the two, she was forced to apologize in short order.

Where the South Africa comparison does make sense is in how the IRA, its leaders, members, and supporters, see themselves: as part of a global anti-colonial movement. Growing up in west Belfast this sentiment was inescapable: it was literally painted on the walls in the infamous political murals. In fact, in some places, such as on the "peace wall" dividing Belfast’s Divis Street between Catholics and Protestants, it still is.

The main reason McGuinness is held in relatively high esteem, however, is that Adams has never admitted membership of the IRA, and so he is regularly goaded by politicians and journalists alike. McGuinness was able to draw a line under the past precisely because he did admit his membership.

Up to a point, anyway. McGuinness in fact stated that he left the IRA in 1974, something that no one believes and that has been largely glossed over in Tuesday's eulogies.

Nonetheless, McGuinness’s journey from gunman to statesman was real. Unlike Adams, who has been dogged by accusations that he authorized the murder of Jean McConville, one of the most controversial killings in the Irish conflict, McGuinness’s was widely viewed in a more sympathetic light, particularly as he was from, and active in, Derry during the Bloody Sunday massacre in 1972, when 26 unarmed civilians were shot, 14 of them fatally, by British soldiers. Having left school with no qualifications, McGuinness was, in today’s parlance, "radicalized" in the febrile atmosphere of Northern Ireland in the 1960s. By the time he became minister, McGuinness had effectively switched places with Adams, becoming the more trusted and less feared of the two.

McGuinness’s IRA membership was hardly a secret, anyway. A photographer who had as a younger man been in a rival republican group, the so-called "Official Sinn Féin," once showed me a letter, dated from the 1970s, that described the young IRA commander in Derry as a likely future major player. I can’t remember exactly how the letter put it, but it is hard to see how McGuinness could have ever had any credibility if he denied IRA membership – with either friends or foes.

Martin McGuinness never told the whole truth – I doubt anyone involved in Northern Ireland's "troubles" ever did – but his legacy proves that even in this era of post-modern "plural narratives" and so-called "fake news" brute facts and truth still matter.

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